Posted by: owizblog | November 6, 2017

Knowing and its Responsibilities: Sermon, UCB, 5 November 2017


Some weeks, writing your sermon, you just want to think about something, anything, else; something different to the tenor of the news for day after day after day. Some weeks, if you’re a preacher, you long to be able to start somewhere so far away from the themes that the media are preoccupied with that your congregation are taken to an exalted place, somewhere far away from what the world seems to have become.

So I turn to the Lectionary, look up today’s reading – and Jesus says “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practise what they preach…” And I turn to the Old Testament, and read Micah’s condemnation of the institutional life of his people and his country, and I know that I won’t be let off from beginning this morning where I don’t want to begin.

What began as the “Harvey Weinstein affair” has now spread to the highest circles of political life in our country, and that’s after a series of disclosures over the last few years of sordid and horrible things – and far, far worse – which have revealed a culture, a nasty, manipulative culture, which is based on power, and reduces people to two categories; those who have power, and those who don’t.

Yet there’s a strange thing; this culture of power and powerlessness has been revealed to us, and we’ve suddenly realized that although we suddenly understand much more than we did, that there were bits of it that somehow we did know, at least to some extent; just enough, perhaps, to shudder at, or (God forgive us) to laugh at. Perhaps we even knew that we were looking at the tip of an iceberg, and genuinely never imagined the extent of what was below the surface.

And now, we know.

We’re in a position to know far more, nowadays, anyway, of course. The sheer availability of information makes it harder and harder to keep secrets – but there’s something else. And whatever it sounds like at first hearing, it’s actually a good thing.


Suspicion, once it sets in, is like an avalanche, beginning slowly, with a rumble that rapidly becomes a roar, as the whole thing gathers speed and runs away far beyond the ability to control.

We often complain that we live in a cynical and sceptical age. Perhaps, though, that’s not a bad thing.

The Greek Cynic philosophers practised a particular, detached way of looking at society and culture that stripped away pretentiousness and privilege, and aimed at seeing things as they really were. It’s only we who have made the word “cynic” into a term for someone who takes a jaundiced view of everything. In the same way, there are two kinds of suspicion; there’s the out-of-control suspicion that you see especially in social media, with conspiracy theories abounding and people refusing to believe any consensus view, just because lots of other people do accept it.

But there’s also such a thing as healthy suspicion, the suspicion that demands that things be not taken at face value, especially if that demand comes from authority.

It’s only a week since we celebrated Martin Luther’s questioning – his suspicion, if you like, and its results in his thinking – of what the Mediaeval Church taught on the basis of its own authority. He opposed to that the countervailing, critical authority of Scripture.

And then again, the Protestant tradition stemming from the Reformation that began with Luther did something that no other religious tradition has ever done, within itself. Taking Scripture as its authority, it began looking critically at the Bible itself. It built the greatest arsenal of critical and historical tools in human history – and it turned them on itself. It asked questions about the origin of Scripture, what the Bible really was, what the different books were, and when they were written, and by whom, and what they were for. It asked questions about what in the Bible was historical, and what was of a different nature, what was poetry, what was visionary writing… And it did this in the Divinity Faculties of the great universities of Europe, so that the Church of Scotland insisted that this is how its Ministers were educated. To know the truth and to understand it is what gives honesty, and therefore strength, to our witness to the faith of Christ.


Or to take another example, of how important a refusal to accept how things are, how they are presented, how creative and constructive a culture of questioning, and cynicism, and healthy suspicion of being told that things are “just so”, can be, take our own Kirk culture of Protection of Vulnerable Groups.

How we all mumped and moaned about “Child Protection” when it came in. We all knew that it was vitally important to protect children – but there was all this paperwork, and all these forms, and all this vetting of everyone. And we felt that we were being asked or ordered, to be suspicious of everyone, including people no-one in their senses would ever suspect of posing a danger to children.

And so with all these things…

Now, we know. We know what was hidden, what went on in places it would never be suspected, how unbelievably widespread these things were. It’s as though the water-level suddenly dropped, and suddenly we saw some more of the iceberg, and had a new sense of how huge what had been there before really was.

And suddenly, a reasonable, healthy suspicion – which is just a matter of treating everyone the same way, as much for their own protection as for the children’s and, now, vulnerable person’s – seems so right that it’s hard to imagine it was ever resisted.

And now, the spotlight has finally turned to the way in which women have been treated. Oh yes, people have always known that things have gone on, but have always assumed that it was just pieces of odd, aberrant and rare behaviour they were hearing about. Women who had suffered had often assumed that they had just been unfortunate enough to be among the tiny minority. (Others knew better.)

But ours is now a culture in which the sharing of stories becomes a process, which draws out more and more stories, and finally lets us see how things are.


Previous cultures have had moments of insight a bit like this. The prophets of the Old Testament, before the Exile to Babylon, saw, and bore witness, to what their culture and society were really like, how people were treated in them. The thing about the prophets is that they bore witness in the name of God to the wrongness of this, to how far their society and culture in the eighth and seventh centuries BC diverged from what they should be in the sight of God. Abuses, mistreatment, the writing-off of some people, large numbers of people, as not mattering, not important, not counting in the scheme of things – these things were a blasphemy in the sight of God, because the “scheme of things” is not things the way they are, but things as God intended them to be, and will have them be.

And that’s what the prophets proclaimed. And that’s what our Old Testament reading today proclaims.


And then, there’s the Gospel reading. It’s about hypocrisy – the gap between what people say they stand for, and how they actually conduct themselves. It’s to do with leaders who call for certain standards from others, yet show no interest in them for themselves. It’s about people who are big on rules for others, but don’t apply the rules to themselves, especially where their own interests are concerned.

But it’s also about what it means to live in a society that’s structured like that, that orders its life like that, that sees power and influence and authority in terms like that – there are “those and such as those” and there are the rest, the “hoi polloi” (which is just the Greek for “the many”) and “hoi oligoi”, the few, the oligarchs who don’t see themselves as being like others, or others as being human beings like themselves.

It’s about what it means to live in a society like that, and to try to follow Jesus. And Jesus explains it to his disciples like this:

“But you… have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

This is the Jesus who gave women their place, who scandalized his disciples by talking to the Samaritan woman as though she was an intelligent human being, and not “just a woman” – because that’s what she was; this is the Jesus who let the woman of ill-repute wash and anoint his feet and dry them with her hair because he saw her as a human being, not as what society had made her, and didn’t recoil from her and didn’t reject her.

This is the Jesus who said “Let the children come to me…” and put a child in the midst of the disciples and said “This is what you must be, and who you must become like, to be worthy of the Kingdom of God.”

And this, by the way, is the Jesus to whose resurrection the principal witnesses were all women. I remember Professor Eduard Schweizer, the renowned critical New Testament scholar, giving a guest lecture at St Andrews, and telling us that the most difficult thing to write off in the stories of the Resurrection was the fact that the principal witnesses were women. Women, then as later, and, scandalously, now in the face of the growing scandal at Westminster, were presented as unreliable, emotional, histrionic witnesses who couldn’t be trusted. If, said Professor Schweizer, you sat down in the first century to concoct a story of a resurrection, the last thing you would do would be to have women as your witnesses, because their testimony was considered worthless.

Clearly, that’s not the way God thinks.

To follow Jesus, in the world the way it is, is to live as he calls us to live, and as he showed us how to. It’s to live the life of the Kingdom in things the way they are, and that’s not easy. It’s to love and accept each other, to value each other equally, and to attach the same value to every human being, inside and beyond the church we can see.

And it’s also to take the risk of being prophetic; of seeing things the way they are, and of calling them for what they are, and of taking the consequences of that.

It’s to stare unblinkingly – or as unblinkingly as we can – into the truth, and seeing things as, and for all, they really are. There’s a myth that the eagle can stare into the sun without blinking; that’s one reason that’s given for the eagle’s being the symbol of St John the Evangelist and his Gospel. We are called to stare at the truth, and to look for it if it can’t be found. We are called on not to accept the way things are at face value, and certainly not to imagine that things as they are represent the Will of God. It’s things as they should be that represent the Will of God. That’s what the prophets looked for in the coming of the Messiah, and what Jesus told his disciples to look for in the coming of the Kingdom, the rule, of God.


And so we come to the Table. We come as we are, not as we should be, and offer this worship, Christ’s own worship from the Upper Room, to the Father, “not as we ought, but as we are able”. And we do so, come apart from the world, and knowing that we shall return to the world pretty much as we left it when the Kirk doors open.

But this is the anticipation of the Messianic Banquet, the feast of Heaven, the celebration of the promise of the Kingdom, and food for the journey. This is what defines our calling to be the People of the Way, who can look at the world as it is, and denounce it for what it should be, and is not, and yet proclaim that God in Christ so loved the world… Not the Church – the world…

Some people will remember the series Hill Street Blues, which always began with the morning briefing of the officers at a New York Police Station, telling them what was going on out in their world this morning, and always concluding with the same words: “Hey – take care out there!”  We hear the Gospel, we eat, we drink – and then we go out into a world which makes living the Gospel difficult, and sometimes risky. We need to “take care out there”. But we are called to live differently to the world. We are Christ’s disciples, whatever the demands and risks.

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